Career & Success

Rosalind Brewer: Find Your Voice and Don’t Be Silent

In this View From The Top podcast episode, the former Starbucks COO shares why it’s important to lead with both your head and your heart.

June 23, 2021

Rosalind Brewer has a remarkable ability to see the big picture. She has led major organizations such as Sam’s Club and Starbucks and identified major growth opportunities by tapping into her education in chemistry and data analytics.

In this View From The Top interview conducted by Joy Huang, MBA ’21, the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance and former COO of Starbucks shares why you should find your voice and always speak up. “Don’t be silent in the room,” she says. “Even if you think you’re gonna make a mistake, that’s better than sitting there quiet because you begin to suffocate … So just get it out there and feel like you have value.”

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript: Rosalind Brewer

Rosalind Brewer: The stress was so high of me trying to be two different people. I could not bear it anymore, I was not myself, and so I just reconciled that I’ve got to bring my whole self to work. And the more that I was like who I am in my day, in my personal life, at work, actually work took off.

Joy Huang: That was Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance and former CEO of Starbucks. Roz visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as part of View From The Top. A speaker series where students like me sit down to interview business leaders from around the world. I’m Joy Huang, an MBA student of the class of 2021.

This year I had the pleasure of interviewing Roz from her home office in Seattle. Roz shared her experience managing large companies and stressed the importance of leading with authenticity and empathy. You’re listening to View From The Top, the podcast.

So Roz, many of us don’t really start developing our leadership styles until quite late in life. But from what I learned, you seem to have had a really strong voice from very early on. In fact, you were suspended from school in third grade. What happened?

Rosalind Brewer: You know it amazes me what people can find out about me, but yes, that did happen. Early on, some might call me as a troublemaker, but being the youngest of five, I knew how to really fight for that last piece of bread on the table. So the youngest of five taught me how to be, you know, take care of myself. But in third grade, I got into trouble because I’m sitting in class, and the teacher is teaching math, and I had older siblings and she’s teaching this long way to do this problem. And so I just thought I just get up and help her out and just say, no, there’s a shortcut to this.And so I keep telling her until the point where the next thing I knew, long story short, my parents were at school picking me up because I was adamant about taking that talk and teaching the teacher in the class a shortcut on a math problem or two.

So, it is one way to get in trouble and my parents thought I was really in trouble, but I think after a while, I watched how many times I would laugh at all the stuff I would do as I was growing up. But I think that was my start.

Joy Huang: That’s an amazing story. And that’s actually funny because here at the GSB, there’s this tradition for doing shenanigans in class. And one of them is that you would get up halfway and you would go to the whiteboard and teach. So it is very funny to me how we’re obviously copying what you did in third grade at the age of 26.

Rosalind Brewer: Exactly, it was crazy.

Joy Huang: Never grow old. I’m curious, you said that your parents kind of find that funny. How did they react to the incident and broadly, how did your parents shape your values?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure, well, I think it was eventually they thought it was funny because initially, my parents were so adamant about education. And I grew up in a family and a household where kids were to be seen and not heard. And so we were always shut it off to do the things that we were right and it was very strict household. A lot of that came from my parents did not have the opportunity to go to college, and quite honestly neither finished high school.

And so for them to have five children, and I’m the youngest of five, acting out in school was totally unacceptable because they knew it’s a fine thread between getting kicked out of school once and what can happen to you. I think what made it a little funny was because I really wasn’t acting out, I was just trying to get my voice heard, right? And so I think they began to see that I wanna use my voice and maybe I had raised my hand and she didn’t pay attention to me. And so they started really understanding the dynamics in some of the classrooms and so it turned into a different story. But quite honestly, that would have been disciplinarian action by my parents because they were so strict about education they didn’t want us to miss a thing.

And so it was the beginning of us really having conversations about what does it take to be excellent and what’s the expectation of you. And they would constantly raise the bar for everything in our lives. And so for all five of us to go to college on the backs of two parents who never really were able to do that and worked in the automotive industry was really heroic on my parents part.

Joy Huang: Yeah, and it sounds like they really instilled this confidence in you and a drive to speak up and have a strong voice. And with that confidence, you then decide to leave home and then attended Spelman College. And you have often talked about Spelman as a very defining experience for you.So I’m curious, what were some lessons that you learned there that stay with you until today?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure, so Spelman’s a very small school, private, black, all women’s college in the South. I grew up in Detroit and first of all, I had never experienced the southern life and it was vastly different for me.

Being the youngest of five, I’m the only one that went away to school. Everyone else is wonderful schools in the State of Michigan. I wanted to move away and I did. But Spelman, when I got there, I realized that it was my new home because in that environment — first of all, I love that it was a liberal arts institution because I got a chance to really dive into critical thinking and they were getting all into your head about things that I’d never really thought about. But then also too its such a nurturing environment to have a first name basis with your professors and all the entire faculty, it was very special to me.

And to be in the environment of people, women who look like me, but came from all different walks of life, I knew that I was in a very unique situation. And so going to an HBCU is a very deliberate decision. You’re deciding to go into an environment that’s pretty unique, especially all women. But I remember a couple of experiences that made me realize how special Spelman was. So by my senior year, my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. And spring break of my senior year, I’m studying for the GMAT, trying to finish my major in chemistry, minor in math all at the same time when I get the call that I need to get home because this looks like my father was moving, passing on.

And so this was six weeks before graduation and all of a sudden I get my organic (chemistry) teacher changing all of my test dates for me so that I can test when I get back. The school chaplain was in my dorm room within 10 minutes after getting the call. And everyone was just rallying around me just trying to give me the strength to get home, get my dad buried, get back to school, take the GMAT, and graduate in six weeks. And I don’t know that that would have happened for me at any other institution. And so it is something to have that kind of feeling and closeness that I will absolutely never forget my experience at Spelman because I felt like people saw me for me and not as another number in the school, so it’s a special place, a very special place.

Joy Huang: It sounds like a really hard thing experience to go through, until after the school was fully supportive of you. You did talk a lot about it being a strong community. So during my research, I actually came across something on social media. If you could see on the screen you probably remember this.

Rosalind Brewer: Yes, yeah, wow. Yeah, that was October 2 2018, the day it was announced that I was the new Chief Operating Officer for Starbucks. Yeah, so this this was an amazing time, all over the country, actually all over the world. I had my sorority sisters. Actually, I’m an Alpha Kappa Alpha. Just like Kamal Harris and so they rallied around me and every drive through our store they went into they order their drink and put my name on it, and it was overwhelming when I saw, I didn’t see this because I was involved in the press releases that morning and I got back to my hotel room.

I was in Seattle, and I turned on social, starting to look at my social media feed, and I saw these cups, and I just absolutely lost it. I mean, I remember I slipped off the bed onto the floor and I was just like, my God, did they really do this? And it was just a reminder that there’s no other place in the world that you can feel like someone accepts you for you. And it was my sorority, my college, and it was a truly heartfelt moment. But it was amazing, it was really great.

Joy Huang: Yeah, it’s so incredible to see that the relationship that you had were still so strong, it was 20 odd years later and also just inspiring to see that you have such an impact on your community.

Rosalind Brewer: Well, it was something else, it was amazing.

Joy Huang: Now Roz, your influence and impact obviously extends way beyond Spelman into the many organizations that you’ve been part of. And as a leader, what you like to say is that you like to lead both with your head and with your heart.

Rosalind Brewer: Yeah.

Joy Huang: So I thought we should start with the first piece leading with the head. Now, you’ve been in the retail industry for more than ten years now and you were quite the visionary doing a lot of time. For example, when you were at Sam’s Club, you invested a lot of efforts into curbside pickup and ecommerce efforts. Which was quite ahead of many of the offline retailer peers, and still a really critical piece of the strategy for Walmart today. So I’m curious, now you’re leading Starbucks, you’re on the board of Amazon. What are some things that that you’re making on the future of retail?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure. So, it’s interesting because some of that work I’m bringing for with me to Starbucks. But I will say that joining Starbucks — Starbucks had a fantastic digital flywheel once I joined there, and their loyalty program was very strong. But as you know, any business leader will tell you is that every day it’s about trade offs, can we continue to invest in all of the technology that we need to have and still do everything else we need to do to innovate at the company. And so myself along with many others, because there’s some extremely bright, brilliant talent at Starbucks. I am so fortunate to have the kind of partners that I have there, what we created together in innovation lab. And then in that innovation lab, we began to think about how do we change the engine of making coffee at Starbucks? And so we have baristas that love the beautiful craft of making a wonderful latte. And so they want to be seen doing that. But actually, we’re pretty popular right now and so in the morning, we have stores that will do, some astronomical number of coffee cups per minute, right? And so we began to look at a new engine at Starbucks. And so we introduced a new model where it’s a pick up only store where everything is digital, we flip the kitchen to the back. And we’ve opened up several of those. We have three or four of those in our unit, but we just recently announced we’re gonna add more of these pickup units to our fleet.

So the technology goes on and on with with Starbucks. So it starts also with the stores, and then also too — relieving our baristas of having to do any kind of manual work, like manual scheduling. So all scheduling is automated, centralized planning and replenishment is underway. Everything that we’re doing from optimizing the drive through window. And what’s so interesting is that going into this COVID experience in life where we’re trying to create social distancing, everything that we had in our innovation pipeline, we’ve been able to bring it forward pretty quickly. So that’s been part of our recovery plan, we had innovation plans three to five years out.

We’re now executing that on an — a by 18 months, we’ll have all of that innovation out in the field and so it’s pretty exciting. It’s around beverage innovation, the story innovation, and then what we continue to do with the digital flywheel. So, I’m very grateful for the work and the things that I learned at Walmart because I’m actually bringing that forward at Starbucks. And it’s exciting to have, be with a coffee company that’s so digitally sound as we are so it’s pretty exciting.

Joy Huang: And one thing that you mentioned that will probably continue after the pandemic is this trend towards everything going more virtual and digital right and you talked about changing store formats into pickup only. It seems like a very particular problem to Starbucks because the company has always prided itself on being a third place and a place where people would come together and relax and have a great conversation. So how do you think about creating and maintaining that connection in that community in a virtual world?

Rosalind Brewer: Yes, and you know that is one of the things that we put … we look at our work as what are the most significant problems we can solve and that is one of them because that’s what we admire about our mission and values is that third place. But when you approach a Starbucks and you see the familiarity of your barista that you love and that you can say hello, how are you Jessica? You remember your barista. Your barista remembers the customer, it starts right there. And that’s rather you’re handing something through the drive through window or you’re going out to curbside. And we, right now I’ll tell you, our customer connection scores are higher than they were pre COVID. And that’s pretty exciting to see that, first of all, we know that people are starving for connection again, and they’re starving for something that they’re familiar with so that their customized beverage is something that they look forward to. And when Starbucks opened back up, they were like, my gosh, okay, there’s something that’s normal here and I can see my barista and we never underestimate that. So the things that we’re doing is we’re just trying our best to free up our baristas time so that they can give eye contact and look the customer squarely in the face and I get amazed. And I tour a ton of stores, I’m still touring stores even through COVID. I’m just doing my own driving to stores by myself in the vehicle, in my own car, and just going to stores and walking in and spending time at a distance with the baristas because they want to see us and then I hear the conversations between the customers and the baristas, and the excitement of them reconnecting. It’s amazing to me and it helps me understand that some of this will be temporary. But what they really want is that human connection, and we can still provide that even if we’re going to some of our convenience miles. So we’re pretty excited about that and our customers have given us great feedback right now.

Joy Huang: Yeah, as a person who was going through her second Zoom quarter, I totally empathize with that.

Rosalind Brewer: Yeah, it’s been really wonderful to see though.

Joy Huang: And Roz, you are a bit different from a lot of our guests for view from the top in that many of them are CEOs, but you are a true operator. And you’ve led massive organizations like Sam’s Club and Starbucks. And I think you have this amazing ability to see the big picture, but also to really get into the weeds. An example was that, when you joined Starbucks it was actually kind of a low point for the business and sales wasn’t doing well and you came in and quickly discovered some operational issues that really moved the needle. One of them was an insight that store traffic was too slow at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

Rosalind Brewer: That’s right.

Joy Huang: And I bet there could have been maybe fifty, hundreds of issues that you could have looked into. So how are you able to hone in so quickly at such a micro level?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure, so one of the things being at Walmart is that you spent … we got a chance to spend a lot of time in stores. And after a while, I can almost walk in a store and get a feel for the operations of the store. One prime example is if I walk in a store I can tell if the employees are not proud of their unit, they’ll immediately look down at their feet. So I know they’re either not proud of the operation, they recognize who I am and I’m about to hear the story. So what I try to do when I walk in these units is to kind of diffuse that to say look, I’m here to help. I’m not here to reprimand.

So, I’ve thrown trucks at Walmart, which means unloaded midnight. I’ve done that. And I wouldn’t enjoy getting behind the bar. I don’t make the best latte but I try my best to do latte part as best I can … looks a little weird sometimes, but I try to meet them where they are because I feel so responsible that there’s probably something that we did at the home office that’s creating a bad outcome at the store. So that’s part of it. But I’ve also, having a background in chemistry and a little bit of analytics. So you can kinda watch a operation and see what’s flowing and not flowing. And then match it with numbers and data and analytics and pretty come out pretty much come up with your solution.

So, understanding that we were maxing out in the morning but then tons of opportunity in the afternoon. It was a chance for us to say what’s the menu in the afternoon. What’s the customer looking for in the afternoon, who is in the store in the afternoon? What’s competition doing in the afternoon and then we were able to adjust and offer something different in the afternoon day part and began to grow the business that way.

So we dug ourselves out of a pretty deep hole back at that time and it’s still pre COVID we were having some of the most fantastic results and as you saw in our prior earnings were returning to recovery in short order. So, it pays off to be an operator. I will tell you I say it’s like the ultimate bob and weave. I’ve got to go high and create strategy and multi year, create the vision, create a roadmap, give people something to aspire to, create hope. But then I’ve gotta be able to kind of live in their shoes to know that when I make these changes and I suggest big major growth initiatives I have to understand what is it gonna take to get this team to follow me. And I’m really glad that I had some of the small jobs that I have. But I realize the reason why I’ve had some of these small jobs too, is because quite honestly there were times in my career where I was given the unfortunate work to do. And I always had to do some of the toughest dirtiest jobs. And I had to do those so, but it gave me a chance to learn and I try and put it to work every day and look at it as a blessing that I got some of the smaller jobs, the unfortunate positions.

Joy Huang: Yeah, it’s amazing to hear that you took that experience, and then complain about it, but rather turn it into a lot of empathy now for your employees. It’s interesting to see how it’s a combination of both the analytics and then also just feeling the store and seeing the people. But again Starbucks has 1000s of stores and 100,000s employees. So when it says that scale, how do you make sure you’re successful in driving execution, and then perhaps equally importantly at motivating those people so they’re aligned around the same goal?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure, so it is all about your talent, right? And so having the ability to identify great talent. And it’s not just individual talent. It’s also looking at what’s the dynamics of your team. How do you get that team to move like, like an orchestra, and that’s what I always say is that I feel like I’m the conductor of the orchestra and I wanted to have its best performance. So I can’t just select one or two good talents. I’ve got to figure out, how are these people going to work together? Prime examples: right now the Executive Vice President for US operations that reports to me, she is a fantastic people leader. She can motivate, like something I’ve never seen. And when you’ve got that large number of stores, you need someone like that and she’s not one that I’m gonna press about strategy. I’m not gonna press about her spending. Because I trust she’ll do that very well. But more than anything I know she’ll motivate that barista that’s on the front line.And that’s so important.

So it really begins with the talent that you select and how you put those pieces together. And then how do you build the trusting relationships because they’ve got to know that I have their back every day. I instill that in them, I stand up for them, I fight for them. And so then I think when I do create that visionary message, they trust that I’m gonna get them over the finish line, right? And they know I’m not gonna leave them on the sidelines. They know I’m not gonna blame them, they know I’m gonna dig into the details with them. And so we began to work together. ‘Cus I do believe in still rolling my sleeves up. It takes that. You cannot in retail today, if you’re not willing to roll your sleeves up, get ready for some pretty mundane numbers because it takes you really getting into the trenches to get these companies to grow and that’s what it takes right now.

Joy Huang: And speaking of motivating people, I think this is a great segue into the second piece of your leadership, which is leading with the heart. And as an Asian woman, I could sometimes get a little tired of questions around diversity and equality, but at the same time, I do recognize the value of sharing my own experience and hope that it sparks conversation. So in that spirit, I will love to revisit a moment that was particularly difficult for you early in the days. And it was only a few months after you had took over the Starbucks America’s business: two black men, Rashon Nelson, and Dante Robinson were woefully arrested in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. Now I think many of us knew the facts of what happened later, but could you take us back to that moment? You just heard about the incident, you got on a flight you’re on your way to Philadelphia, what was going through your mind?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure. So, you know when I got the news and it was interesting the way I began to pick up the news and the news was really hot on black social media. And It hadn’t quite hit anywhere else. So I’m hearing it and I’m letting other people in the company know when it’s kind of catching up with us that we got a problem in Philadelphia. Once we realized just how bad it was, I did take off to Philadelphia and meet some of my partners there. The first thing that really startled me was that I was beginning to get the feed on the two gentlemen and I could see what they look like. So I knew right away. So first of all, it was two people arrested. It wasn’t, we didn’t know that they were African American males. It quickly became African American males and then when I saw them, the first thing I thought about is, wow, this is not gonna be good. In addition to, they look so familiar to me, right because they’re everything that I’ve seen in my communities, right and by the way, I have a son. My son was that exact same age. And so, I looked at what happened, and thought, this could happen to my son any day of the week. And, I was actually terrified, because those two gentlemen went to jail that night, and they stayed there overnight. Just for having walked into a Starbucks and there’s something wrong with that.

There’s something wrong, and I knew right away, there was something wrong. And, we got into Philadelphia, created a war room and began to work on this situation. And the first thing was to make sure that these two gentlemen returned safely to their home. And, we were engaged in that work. And then began to tell the story. And to admit, that Starbucks did something wrong here. And, our policies failed us. Our leadership failed us. This happened under, I felt like it happened under my watch. I’m running US operations. Part of my responsibility, and these two gentlemen, the police were called after 10 minutes of being in our stores.

Now, that’s not what we do at Starbucks. And so I knew, and then I looked at the young woman who was running that store. And like I mentioned before, leadership is all about the talent that you select and she’s a fine talent. But for her to work at a store at 18th and Spruce in Philadelphia and she’s a young new leader, we set her up for failure and then the whole system falls down, falls apart. And the interpretation of policies was taken for granted. We had work to do. And the other thing is that we had not had the realization that what’s happening outside of Starbucks store has begun to come inside the store. So homelessness and all those things that are happening in our communities. But our policies say, allow people to have a beverage, sit down, stay for a while if they’re not ordering after about 45 minutes, maybe encourage them to have a beverage. But now people come into our stores for respite, right? And for warmth. And but our policies were based on something years ago when that’s not what a Starbucks door was equipped to do.

And our leaders weren’t trained to how do you handle anyone coming in and outside the store so it could be misinterpreted, and it was. So we admitted our faults. But we got around this issue. We knew we needed to train on anti bias training. There’s some biases that were likely involved in this; and we got after it and we continue to get after it daily with training and development and leadership at the right time right person in the right role. All of those things really matter in terms of how you want to manage, but it was frightening. Because I knew at any moment that could have been my son and quite frankly I got a call from my son. And he’s living in New York and he said mom, this thing is bad. And you have got to fix it. And you’ve got to do this. This is all, this is everything you need to do right now. And when you hear your son talking to you, I picked up fear in his voice because I think he was saying mom fight for me. Because that’s me, I felt that and I fought like hell for him and for Dante and Shawn, that this will never happen again.

Joy Huang: And like you’re saying in that moment, yes, you’re the CEO, but you’re also a mother and then you are part of the community. How did you think about balancing, having your own voice versus quote and quote, being the voice of the company?

Rosalind Brewer: Right, right, so, I think timing is everything. I think the company was open to my influence on this situation. I think they clearly recognize that I’m gonna take care of the brand and do the right thing for the company. But we all have to recognize when the company has not done its best work. And that was a very honest moment for all of us. And so I think there was immediate growing trust for me, they were getting to know me. But they knew that I was gonna take care of the company as well as take care of this situation because I felt like, if I could influence Starbucks and the visibility of this brand, could we absolutely influence other companies? So all the training that we developed we did it open source so if any company called us and said, how did you do that? You closed your stores, who did your training?

We developed our training here, take it, and it was expensive. And we gave it to any company or anyone who called us and said, look, we’ll teach you how to do this. No charge because this is a problem not only for Starbucks. It’s a problem in our society right now of making judgment of people prematurely and it has to stop. And eight police officers called for two gentlemen sitting in a store, is unacceptable. And we’re fortunate that’s all that happened to those two gentlemen that they had to stay overnight. Very fortunate because we’ve since then right learn some other things that could be terrible.

Joy Huang: Yeah, and so good to know that in that moment, it seems like those two things really aligned. And yet it was still very, a very emotional moment for you, right? You’re talking about fear and worry and, and it just sounded really overwhelming. So, how do you take care of yourself in moments like that?

Rosalind Brewer: Yeah, well, I’ll be honest with you for that period of time where we were in Philadelphia, the media was pretty hot. I took on a lot of the local media. The other good thing is that throughout my career I’ve gotten to know pretty much most of the mayors across the United States. I make it my business to know them because I feel like I’m going to need to have a conversation with them either in buying real estate in their city or investing or something. So I used my rolodex like I’ve never like I’ve never have. And I called in, a lot of help for people to teach me how to have these conversations. So I tried to keep my fear down and turn it into energy. It was sleepless. I mean, we did not go to bed several days. I remember one day we had to go over to the courthouse, and I would run out of clothes. And so I had on a pajama shirt with my suit jacket over it and so I kept pulling my jacket to cover up the little teddy bear on my shirt because I still had on my PJs up under there because I couldn’t get out of the hotel because people were wanting to touch and feel so put it that way. And so it’s amazing what you’ll do when you’ve got a little bit of fear and anxiety, but you know you’ve got work to do. You just buckle down and do what you have to do and we’re in a pajama shirt up under your suit is not the worst thing that’ll ever happen to you. So you just have to keep your head on straight. It was hard to focus. But I knew that we were doing the right thing.

And I knew that we were living in a historical moment and we had a chance to either do this very right or do it very wrong. But everything I had learned in my life came to bear in that situation, my son’s faced these two young men who were trying to start a new business, they were there to have a conversation about starting a new company. My new company that I was falling in love with, I didn’t want them to fall on the ground. The lovely young woman who we had hired to work in this store, what’s going to happen to her? So everything was coming together and so this whole concept of head and heart, that is the leadership model that makes you most successful in these heated moments because you can’t have … if I went through this thing just with my head, I would have made a whole lot of different decisions, it probably would have been much more abrasive, but I was able to keep my head on straight.

Joy Huang: Thank you so much for sharing that really personal and emotional side with us. It is inspiring to see that that actually helps you become more effective as a leader and not to your detriment. Roz, as a senior leader, you’re never afraid to say what is right, but for some of us, and for me at least as we’re a bit earlier in our career, it could sometimes feel very risky or daunting to speak up if we don’t feel like we have sufficient credibility or seniority. So I’m curious, how has your voice evolved as you became more senior?

Rosalind Brewer: Sure. So what you just described that was me early on in my career. I actually felt like my voice didn’t really matter because I was overlooked so much I was like, well, they don’t care to hear what I have to say, so I can go to a meeting unprepared or because they’re not ever going to call on me, it doesn’t matter. And that’s pretty frustrating after a while, I mean I was doing a job on my own self with that mentality. And then the next part of me after that was trying to find my place and use my voice. And I then began to be too much like the company person. I began to dress like all the men at work and all that crazy stuff and it was ugly apparel. I hated it, but I did it anyway and I was sick when I was driving home like who is this? And then when I get home and my family will be like, okay, why are you talking like that? And so then after a while, it was so stressful that I just said, I just have to figure out how to bring my whole self to work. So, I have two children. I have a son and a daughter, my daughter is 17. Well, early on, my daughter wanted to swim. She’s African American. So like every other black family, you have to get your daughter’s hair braided. That’s just the whole deal. If they’re going to swim, you got to get their hair braided. So one day I’m leaving work, they’re like, why are you leaving early? I was like, I gotta go get my daughter’s hair braided swim classes started.

They are like, why are you braiding her hair? I was like, because if I don’t, I’m gonna have to deal with this hair on her head, and so I had to explain cornrows to people I work with. And after a while I just decided it was so stressful trying to hide. I could have said on leaving the office for a doctor’s meeting, a doctor’s appointment was like no, I gotta go get cornrows done. Let me tell you what that’s like. I gotta sit here for eight hours in the salon. But once I started doing that I felt so much better. The stress was so high of me trying to be two different people, I could not bear it anymore. I was not myself and so I just reconciled that I’ve got to bring my whole self to work. And the more that I was like who I am in my day, my personal life at work, actually work took off because I think people got to know me better and they knew how they could see me for me and there was no shell they had to peel off.

So it was uncomfortable for my peers, my boss, everyone else, but once I decided, what do I have to lose? So it was so much better, but the other thing I look back on, and this is what I tell when I have a new hired that straight from school, is that, we know why we intentionally hired you. This isn’t a numbers game, but if I hire an Asian woman, that’s because I want an Asian woman’s voice at the table. So if you come and don’t use your voice, I feel like I got a bad investment here. So I always tell folks: understand why you’re here. Don’t be bashful about it. Let’s be clear. I need an Asian woman’s voice at the table. So that’s why you’re here, this isn’t anything about I need to hit a number or diversity number. And so sometimes when I see people sitting back in their seat and not engaging in the conversation, I will call on them and say what do you think and they hate it.

But after a while, I just say, okay, good idea move on, but I keep picking on until they feel, because first of all, you got to hear yourself talk. And once you hear yourself talk, you’re like, okay, I can talk. I mean, it’s just that simple. And then when people nod, people will nod at your idea, then you’re going to find somebody that’s going to use your idea once you say it, they’re just going to say a little different. And then after a while, it becomes a process. But don’t sit silent in the room, and I try my best whenever I see that I always call that person out and try to give them a platform and I’ll endorse what they say. I’ll help them with their viewpoint. I see that they’re struggling, because it absolutely it still takes that. But don’t be silent in the room. Even if you think you’re gonna make a mistake that’s better than sitting there quiet because you began to suffocate, to be honest with you, you’ll suffocate your opinion yourself. It’ll change your self esteem. So just get it out there and feel like you have value. And I think it’s so important.

Joy Huang: That is amazing advice. And Roz, you’ve been advocating for equality for many years, but a lot of times, it just seems like things haven’t changed as much as we would’ve wanted them to. And I know this year has been particularly difficult for a lot of us, as we continue to witness racism and injustice and at times it can feel very overwhelming and disheartening. I’m curious if you see any hope in a moment. And what do you think we can all collectively do to use this moment to move forward together.

Rosalind Brewer: Yeah. I’ll be really frank with you, there’s been some days where I’ve had to really pull myself up, to say and do the right thing, because I’m human too, I’m a mom, the Mod Aubrey thing really struck me hard. That one stuck with me, George Floyd murder stuck with me. It’s so interesting. I have all nephews and only one niece and so all these young black males are around me. And so I remain nervous and scared for them right now and wondering what more that I can do but I pull myself up knowing that if I stay steadfast to set the example, engage as many people as I can in conversations and use myself as an example to teach and educate. Maybe I do have a way to begin to change these narratives and the views of people. The other thing I think that I’ve been really focusing on is getting people to vote and vote in every election. I don’t care if it looks like a school superintendent and you’re, just go vote, and so I’ve been a pretty big advocate for that.

It’s the best way we can change and have our voice heard, is to vote. I think also too, I’m an optimist, and I think that there is something about a pandemic happening during the time of social unrest, during the time of some of the most biggest environmental issues ever between. In one week we had fires, flooding and storms, all in one week acs two different parts of the country. And then, the outcome of this is to see the inequities of who gets help and who doesn’t get help. And so, when you see about, you see things like what’s happening with COVID, and you can’t say, well, why is that happening?

Well, why are African Americans and Latinos, why are they more exposed? Well, it’s because the housing and living conditions years ago. Asthma is something that is environmental, right? And so, what was their housing situation like? Where are there opportunities for medicine? And by the way, where’s the education system? So what this is doing right now, this very moment that we’re in, it is unveiling the weaknesses in our country like never before. So while we all regret it, I personally regret it. It is now pulling the covers off of so many embedded issues that we have to face because these things will happen again.

But hopefully we’ll never go into a pandemic while our communities are in such social unrest. So, put in positions where healthcare is not available to them, hopefully, we’ll begin to do things different because right now, we have a laser beam on the real ills of our country right now, and we should be paying attention to those.

Joy Huang: Yeah, that’s very true and I hope more people would not just pay attention, but also be part of it and share the burden.

Rosalind Brewer: Exactly.

Joy Huang: Yeah, and I can’t wait. I hope soon enough, we’ll be so obsessed about talking about equality the same way that we’re obsessed with quarterly earnings today.

Rosalind Brewer: Exactly, that’s so true. You’re right about that.

Joy Huang: Roz, time just flew, or maybe we’re at the end of the interview, it’s true it has been a pleasure. We did select some students for a Q and A session. So we’ll turn to those student questions right now.

Rosalind Brewer: Awesome, that’s great.

Joy Huang: I think we see the first question on the screen. Do you mind introducing yourself before the question?

Marcia: Of course. Hi, Joy. I’m Marcia Austin. I’m an MBA one here at the GSB.

Rosalind Brewer: Great.

Marcia: And so my question for you is this. What was the most pivotal point in your career that you think was the point that led you to the C-suite?

Rosalind Brewer: I think probably the most pivotal moment that led me to the C-suite was when I left Kimberly Clark after 22 years of being in the CPG industry. I was group president of Global Manufacturing and Operations, and I left there to take a role at Walmart as a vice president and regional leader out in the field running stores. And I knew either I was crazy or I was determined to do something great. At the time, Walmart didn’t have the best reputation at that time. And I knew I was walking into either a gold mine or with something else. But it was an opportunity for me to really step up. I really wanted to impact the most people that I possibly could. And Walmart has 2.2 million employees, and I said, you know what, Roz? Forget about, I really wasn’t thinking about the C-suite, I was thinking about impact. But now I realize, impact comes with scale and growth. And I knew, as soon as I got in there, I was promoted four months after I came in as a VP, I was made senior vice president. And then with them, a year executive vice president. So, but again, I wasn’t in pursuit of the CEO job. I actually, when I got the call for the Sam’s role after being with the company for five to six years, I knew, then I was like, wow, this must be a big opportunity. So it wasn’t like I was looking for that, but I think that moment where I said I’m willing to throw away a title, a comfortable job, to go to an environment, I knew I had something in me that I was trying to satisfy and it was impact. And so I think that gets you to some of the higher levels when you pull yourself out of trying to get a title and put yourself into a big problem to solve.

Marcia: Thanks for that.

Joy Huang: Yeah, that really resonated, and I think here in the Silicon Valley, we are probably sometimes biased towards founding our own thing and creating impact that way. Yeah two million employees—that’s impact for you.

Rosalind Brewer: It’s impact. That’s right.

Joy Huang: So we will go to the second question.

Urlika: Yeah, so hi. Hi, good morning from Germany. Yeah, so my name is Urlika. I’m in Stanford LEAD program. It’s my first month and I’m very, very happy and excited that I have the opportunity to ask you a question. On one side, you have mentioned about COVID speeding up your pipeline, your innovation lab projects, but I’m interested about now, about the current situation. So my question is, how do you manage to operate successfully under this COVID-19 situation to maintain a durable and growing business?

Rosalind Brewer: Yes, I love this question because we’re trying to understand what is gonna remain permanent. What I don’t really enjoy the term new normal, but there’s gonna be some permanence out of this and then there are some things it’s very temporary, and trying to separate the two of those is where the difficulty comes into play. But I will tell you, one of the things we’re learning about COVID is how important it is to keep your business sharp. We’ve got a pretty clean balance sheet, so we went into this in a strong financial position, but not knowing whatever, what could happen to your business — it just reminds us all to run this thing pretty sharp because there’s some companies that are not gonna make it and that are relying on a lot of help from the government. So it’s just a reminder going through this COVID experience in terms of how important it is to stay sharp.

I also will say that who would have ever thought that we would have a life living in technology like we’re doing right now? And how we can remain humanized? Like the question I got earlier about what are those things, how do we keep the Starbucks brand fresh? But I’ll tell you is that if you’ve not learned empathy through this instance, you shouldn’t be a leader right now because people, this is very difficult. We have young mothers who are on Zoom calls all day while they’re trying to teach a four or five year old how to get themselves through a Zoom call and get their lessons done. I’m telling you, I feel so blessed that my kids are older because I’d have to throw in the towel.

And we cannot afford to have women not in the workplace, that is just not acceptable. It can’t happen. We’ve got to think of other solutions. One of the things I’ve done in my organization is that we have no meetings before 9a.m, because you need to get the kids settled and get them at least in front of the laptop and pack a lunch and prop them up in front of that screen. That’s the reality. And then we have something on Fridays called Quick Connect Fridays. And the only thing you’re allowed to do on a Friday is call someone and say hello. You can’t have any business, any serious business meetings, and it’s for you to reflect on the week, recognize people, give people recognition, and call and check on somebody.

And so we call it Quick Connect Fridays, and no meetings Monday through Friday before 9a.m. And that’s one of the things that COVID has taught us is to meet your employee base where they are. And it’s important now and it’s gonna be important for a while.

Joy Huang: I think we’re just waiting for the third to come on the screen.

Steve: Hi, Roz. My name is Steve Selma. I’m also a member of the Stanford LEAD program. And my question, I think you kind of touched on this a little bit, but maybe you could expand on it was, how does the shift to remote work influence your leadership style, if at all.

Rosalind Brewer: Yes, so what I just mentioned is part of it, but I think the other part is I’m finding as a leader that I have to be very intentional. Because when you’ve got someone engaged in a camera, it’s not like you’re gonna lean over and have a casual discussion and create the sidebars, and sidebar conversations can be very rich, right? Because you kinda vibe off of each other. So one of the things that I worry about a bit, is that what about our future innovation? Because innovation happens when brains collide and conversations happen. So we’ve been using some unique software for that to help us, a software called Nero that you probably are familiar with.

Or, I was able to go over to the home office this week in Seattle and spend some time in our innovation lab just to connect with people to say I see the work you’re doing, I love what you’re doing and to keep on. So I’m spending a lot of my time just making sure that I have these connection points with individuals and making sure that innovation keeps going. That’s one of the things I worry about is that refilling that pipeline of innovation right now.

Joy Huang: Roz, I love that even though you were talking about innovation, but you’re still fundamentally talking about people and meeting them where they are and making sure that they could have a voice. I have one last question for you before we wrap it up. We’ll be asking this question to all the speakers that join us this year. What principles do you rely on when you are facing the toughest moments as a leader?

Rosalind Brewer: So in my toughest moments, first of all, I rely on high integrity. And so first and foremost, I wanna make sure that I am doing the right thing by the situation, and my integrity nor the integrity of the company is gonna be impaired. So I would have to say high integrity is the first thing. The second thing that I rely on is trust. I want to make sure that each and every day I’m building on trust. People want to know that they work for somebody that cares about them, and that they can be depended upon. So I rely on trust and trusting relationships. And then lastly, I think what I depend on, and this is the operator in me, is just doing what I say I’m going to do. And that’s not always easy. I have competing objectives sometimes, I have a very tough calendar. I’m a director of one of the largest companies in the world that is a fantastic company, Amazon. So I have to make sure that I can deliver on what I say I can do because it’s part of who I wanna be known for. I want people to feel like they can trust me and that they can count on me. So that really matters to me quite a bit.

Joy Huang: Thank you for sharing that. Roz, we’ve learned so much from this conversation about measuring massive organizations, about motivating people, making tough decisions, but I think above all, about how we should and can show up as ourselves and with our values and speak up when something’s not right.

Rosalind Brewer: Yes.

Joy Huang: So yeah, I thank you again for joining us. And thank you for making our world a more equitable and well-caffeinated place.

Rosalind Brewer: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. I’ve so enjoyed this, and to the students and the faculty there, keep doing great things. I mean, the most important thing we can do is just get into the minds of young people. Make them feel valued, show them the ropes and the roadmaps and the future and the vision of what can be, and we’ll all get through this, we’ll all be better for it. So, but thank you for having me.

Joy Huang: Thank you, Roz It’s been an honor. You have been listening to View From The Top: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Joy Huang, of the MBA class of 2021. Lily Sloan composed our theme music, and Kelsey Doyle produced this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website www.gsb.stanford.edu.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More